Sunday, November 29, 2009

Good manners make people happy

Remember when children had good manners? Watch this Thanksgiving video just to jog your memory. Remember matching sweaters? Remember "happy times"? Aren't you glad you know what to do with a napkin? Holidays are fun.

And aren't you glad, now that you've watched the video, that you live in the 21st century? We still need good manners, but surely they go beyond which fork to use and how to eat food easily without noise and neatly without spots. Rather, good manners require us to understand, honour, accept and include very different protocols from different cultures. Good manners in the 21st century demand that we are deeply aware that there are some who are unhappy, not because they have poor table manners, but because they have no food on their table. Food makes people happy. And good manners in the 21st century go beyond offering thanks for our food to offering help to those who have none. Good manners are much more difficult in the 21st century. The new manners are less tidy, neat, and nice - but they are desperately needed for peace in our time and a sustainable future.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A New Operating System for Schools

Daniel Pink, author of the must-read Whole New Mind, makes a riveting and compelling case for dedicating our attention to rethinking assessment. Although his examples are for business, it's no leap at all to apply his thinking to education. He shares the overwhelming research (replicated over and over) to demonstrate that when we incentivize - give bonuses, rewards, or in our case, A's, praise, and smiley faces - we do more harm than good. There is one exception: incentives work if the task we set is simple, clear, routine, with clear rules, a single solution and can be completed by rote. However, for critical, creative, problem-solving, ambiguous tasks, incentives dull thinking, block creativity, don't work and often do harm. Since there isn't much of a future for rote tasks, if we wish to prepare kids for the future, we must rethink our assessment practices (and the tasks we assign).

Pink argues that we need to stop doing more of what doesn't work. It doesn't matter, he points out, if we have a sweeter carrot or sharper stick. In fact, research shows that higher incentives lead to the lowest performance. Instead, we need to create a new operating system for business - and, I argue, for schools. This new operating system must be built on intrinsic motivation, where we do things that matter, because we like them, because they're interesting, because they're important. He argues that the new operating system must revolve around three elements.

Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives,
Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters,
Purpose: yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Can you imagine?

Monday, September 7, 2009

What's Important in Determining What's Important?

Recently, at a workshop with Adrienne Gear (author of Reading Power and Nonfiction Reading Power), she discussed the strategy of "determining importance." What's important, she said, is that students find what's important to them and can justify it, not that they all have the same points. The secondary teacher in me began to protest (silently). After all, in any text, there are main ideas and supporting ideas. Our job is to make sure students know the difference. Surely it doesn't make sense that we visit the same problem on non-fiction that we often have in fiction, where students think they are free to interpret the text however they wish, that there is no "right answer" and that poetry, as Stephen Zelnick observes of his college students, is merely a Rorschach pattern rather than a carefully constructed design.

But Adrienne Gear continued to show how to develop a list with students of ways to determine importance - repeated ideas, stand alone information, information that answers the who, what, where, when, why questions - so they can make choices that help them make sense of text and, most important, are able to justify those choices. Does it matter if everyone has the same point, she asked? I remembered a workshop I attended a few years ago. The presenter was sharing the Magnet Word strategy to a group of teachers (the reader chooses the word that the rest of the paragraph "sticks" to). He had the group participate by reading a very short paragraph on the French Revolution and reporting out the "magnet word." I was astounded by the variety of words chosen and the vehemence with which each teacher justified "their" word as "the" magnet word. The presenter finally gave up trying to get the group to reach consensus. After all, did it matter? And was anyone wrong? (I admit to thinking my word was the only "right" one.)

We are more used to making sure students arrive at the right important idea (and we decide what it is) than that they learn the process by which we arrive there. Students become used to this (the "good" ones, at least) and get busy trying to read the teacher's mind instead of getting curious about the text and puzzling out meaning. Perhaps the biggest problem with Zelnick's college students isn't that they didn't understand that there is a right interpretation, but they had no curiosity about the text at all.

Arriving at answers we can justify, that makes sense to us and for us is exciting and motivating in and of itself. Arriving at "right answers" by comparison is satisfying only if you have some external motivation: marks, goals that need marks, a desire to please parents or teachers. Interestingly, the children who struggle most in school are rarely motivated by any of those things. Teachers throw up their hands and say "these kids" aren't motivated to succeed. But it strikes me that we are focussed on the wrong motivations. We should focus on the purpose of learning: to make sense of ourselves and our world. When learning becomes a means to an end determined by others, it's hardly surprising that those who don't define the end won't participate.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How can we work together? And on what?

We can't do it alone. We know that. Consider a child entering kindergarten this year. To ensure that she is successful when she graduates in 2022, we have to work together not only in her schools (and some children can attend half dozen or more), but as a district to coordinate the resources and support she and her teachers need, and as a community (her family, daycare, recreation providers, health care workers, social services). And together, we need to continually ask - what does she need to be successful? It's a hard question to ask in a rapidly changing world.

Consider: the children who graduated from school this year (leaving us as our new kindergartner begins) started school in 1996. When they waved good-bye to parents on that first day, chances are someone took a picture that needed to be developed (digital cameras for consumers were introduced in 1990 and were still prohibitively expensive and not very good in 1996). Few would have been connected to the Internet at home (only 7% of households in Canada were connected by 1997 - not broadband, of course, but via telephone), text messaging was a new idea used by a handful of people, the patent for WIFI had just been filed, and certainly the students wouldn't have had their own cell phone yet (they cost, on average, $600, and rates were sky-high). iPods were in the future, Google was still a research project by university students, there were no blogs, no YouTube, no Facebook .

What else will become ubiquitous by 2022? How will that affect the economy, culture, individuals? What will a child entering kindergarten today need when she graduates?

We know we have to work and think hard together if we are going to educate her to gain the knowledge, skills and attitudes she needs to participate fully in our society and also to follow her heart to a fulfilling life of meaningful contribution and lifelong learning. But working together is difficult. Not only do we have an increasingly demanding job, but we live (in the rest of our lives as well) in a complex world with constant demands on our attention. Working together might enhance our work in the long term, but in the short term, it just demands more of what we have so little of: time, energy, attention. What can we do better together than on our own? How can we work together effectively (not just spinning our wheels in endless meetings)? And what will we work together on? After all, do we really know what will make the most difference in the life-chances of our kindergartner as she moves through the system toward graduation?

IMAGE: Esquire Magazine - The Object of Desire: The Cell Phone (September 1999)